MOOCs: Paradise lost?

When they first came to prominence half a decade ago, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) seemed to herald a utopian era of free, online education which was open to all. Five years on, Alex Diggins asks how well that vision matches reality

“We had people claiming that we were delivering a course which would help our enemies build a bomb.” For Miri Barak, Associate Professor at the Department of Education at Technion, Israel’s renowned science and technology university, and pioneer of the world’s first Arabic language MOOC, the region’s fractious geo-politics proved more difficult than any technical challenges. “Most of our students were from countries Israel didn’t have diplomatic relations with; we were teaching people we couldn’t even meet,” she said.

Despite its teething problems, Technion’s MOOC in nanotechnology, which was jointly developed by Miri and Professor Hossam Haick, a leading nanotechnologist, has attracted over 60,000 students, from over 16 countries, since its launch in 2014. It is emblematic of the potential of the format: free, online education that crosses cultural, linguistic and political borders.

But there is trouble in Eden. As an Economist report argued in 2017, “the hype over MOOCs peaked in 2012.” The rambunctious predictions of its early entrepreneurs, such as Sebastian Thrun, founder of the MOOC Udacity, who boasted that within 50 years the number of universities would implode to just 10 worldwide, have proved premature. Both providers of MOOCs and those of Online Programme Managers, or OPMs – whereby respected universities, like Berkley or Oxford, make some courses available online – are facing up to the challenges of the format as it matures. Issues like course completion, accreditation, and the need to make education pay, are persistent and unlikely to be resolved any time soon. As The Economist analysis concluded: “although lots of people still sign up, drop-out rates are sky high.”

Most of our students were from countries Israel didn’t have diplomatic relations with; we were teaching people we couldn’t even meet

But as Nigel Smith, MD of Courses and Learning at FutureLearn, a major MOOCs provider, noted: “The MOOC is far from dead. It is already evolving. The vast majority of our learners still learn for free, but we also cater to those who need more specific qualifications.” This transition can be seen across the format. Whilst the majority of providers still offer some courses for free, most have or are developing paid-for components, and even entire degrees. FutureLearn, for instance, are offering a growing portfolio of Continuing Professional Development (CPDs) courses aimed in particular “at the healthcare sector.” MOOCs allow busy professionals to learn “at their own convenience in digestible chunks on their smartphone, desktop or tablet,” said Nigel.

Free courses can also be a gateway into more formal education, Nigel argued. “We have ‘taster’ MOOC courses that are pathways to academic credit including fully online degrees.” This flexibility allows learners “to dip their toe in and see if they like the subject area. It’s a great ‘try before you buy’ option for students.” Sometimes, MOOCs can be used to open up higher education to pupils who might never have had the chance to peruse it formally. FutureLearn has, for instance, been running a five-year project to educate Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon through a Basic English MOOC in partnership with King’s College London and the British Council.

This project, built on the idea of enfranchisement through education, strikes at the idealistic heart of the MOOCs concept. It wasn’t without its difficulties though; “If technology infrastructure such as power or bandwidth is low, then that’s an obvious issue,” Nigel explained. FutureLearn tackled these difficulties by providing “a lot of audio on these courses because it doesn’t require much bandwidth, and we have provided downloadable transcripts as an alternative to streaming files.”

Free courses can also be a gateway into more formal education

Aside from technological challenges, MOOCs face other issues. Course completion is a pressing one. FutureLearn may have had over 19 million course enrolments since its launch, and 8.09 million current registered users but data on completion rates are harder to come by. This problem is not unique to MOOCs. The internet’s culture of disposability – its pervasive share-and-forget mentality – is arguably antithetical to the extended concentration and lengthy time investment required for higher education courses. To some extent, this discrepancy is mitigated by much-touted convenience of the online learning model. But how do MOOCs providers ensure they keep their learners’ attention beyond their next Twitter notification?

One effective way is to get them to pay. Another leading provider of online courses, Udacity, in fact pivoted away from the MOOCs model in 2013, explained its European Managing Director, Brian Hickey. Udacity still offer over 150 free courses to those wanting to ‘top-up’ their learning, but their focus is now on their nanodegrees project which is “a far more holistic and practical education product”. These nanodegrees stress project completion – just like a conventional degree. But, as with FutureLearn’s portfolio, they are aimed primarily at CPD and life-long learners. As Brian claimed: “For those looking to re-train or upskill, flexible, tailored and industry-supported courses provide the perfect complement.”

Brian is now dismissive of the free MOOCs model: “MOOCs suffer from low engagement, poor completion rates, and often an inability to effectively prepare students for the contemporary job market.” As with many online-only businesses, accreditation and market saturation have taken the sheen off MOOCs: with so much choice, potential students are likely to make decisions based on brand recognition rather than detailed research. And, with universities as diverse as Harvard and Southampton expanding their online provision, that market is set to get even more crowded. In addition, with the transition among existing providers like Udacity away from MOOCs towards a more tailored, paid-for model, it seems the utopian promise of free education for all is swiftly receding.

MOOCs suffer from low engagement, poor completion rates, and often an inability to effectively prepare students for the contemporary job market

A suggestive comparison with the evolution of the internet itself can be made. The early internet pioneers, like John Perry Barlow, heralded its egalitarian potential as an unfettered space untainted by the “weary giants of flesh and steel” of industrial capitalism. It is likely that they would look askance at what it has become: the most monopolistic moment in human history, concentrating unprecedented wealth and power in the hands of a few companies (and their billionaire founders).

But Miri is cautiously hopeful that the idealistic potential of MOOCs can be resurrected. “When we talk about 21st-century skills of collaboration, communication, a global mindset – all these things are achievable with MOOCs. They just have to be used wisely.” Perhaps paradise is not quite out of sight after all.